Paul Waldman

What Happened to the Obama Scandals?

flickr/United States Government Work
flickr/United States Government Work A few months ago, political scientist Brendan Nyhan started warning that Barack Obama was due for a major scandal. Nyhan had analyzed previous two-term presidents and determined that by this stage of his second term, particularly with low approval ratings among the opposition party and a lack of major stories dominating the news for long periods, a president stands a strong chance of being engulfed in the kind of controversy that can hobble or even undo a presidency. Nothing was certain, of course—Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton didn't see their all-consuming scandals until the sixth year of their presidencies, which would give Obama a few months—but conditions were ripe. And for a few weeks there, it seemed like the prediction would come true. The news media became simultaneously fascinated with three separate issues—the attack in Benghazi, I.R.S. scrutiny of conservative groups, and Justice Department surveillance of reporters—and it seemed like...

The Magic of Leaked Memos

Flickr/World Economic Forum
Supposedly, people in the White House are told when they start working there that you shouldn't put anything down on paper or email that you wouldn't like to see on the front page of The Washington Post . Not only are lots of documents subject to open records laws, they can be subpoenaed by Congress or a court, or much more likely, just get leaked by one of your co-workers. So you'd think White House staff would exercise some care when it comes to memo writing. Alas, they apparently do not. The time is ripe for some juicy behind-the-scenes tales from the Obama administration, which we'll apparently be getting from This Town , an upcoming book from New York Times Magazine reporter Mark Leibovich. In an excerpt released (leaked?) today, we learn that some staffers circulated a memo with talking points for people to repeat about senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, a longtime confidant of the President's who hasn't exactly been the most popular person on Pennsylvania Avenue. There's nothing...

Should the Employer Mandate Be Eliminated Altogether?

President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act.
This week the Obama administration announced that it was delaying implementation of the "employer mandate" part of Obamacare, so companies won't be required to cover their workers until the beginning of 2015 instead of the beginning of 2014. Their stated reason is that they need more time to work with employers to implement the somewhat complex reporting requirements, and they're trying to be flexible and respond to employers' concerns. Which is probably true, but it's also true that the issue has become something of a political headache, with lots of news stories profiling employers saying the mandate is going to destroy their businesses or lead them to lay off workers and cut back their hours so they don't have to comply. We'll get to what's true and false about those news stories in a moment, but it's important to understand that the "mandate" isn't really a mandate at all. First, it only applies to businesses with 50 employees or more. And second, if employers still don't want to...

The Fire in Mitt's Belly

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
On an episode of The Office from a few years ago, the desperately insecure character of Andy Bernard (played by Ed Helms) hits upon a strategy to ingratiate himself with people, called "personality mirroring." He begins not only repeating what people say to him, but adopting the precise manner and mood of whoever he's talking to. This is pretty much how Mitt Romney went about running for president. A man deeply unsuited to the gladhanding required of a politician made himself into one, through a titanic act of will. And just like when Andy Bernard did it, it was incredibly awkward and off-putting. As the old saying has it, sincerity is the most important thing—if you can fake that, you've got it made. Trouble was, Mitt just couldn't, hard though he might have tried. And it turns out, Mitt didn't even want to run for president a second time. Veteran reporter Dan Balz is coming out with a book about the 2012 campaign, and he learned of the internal Romney family deliberations. They took...

GOP Might Just Stick with This "Party of White People" Thing

The future of the GOP. (Flickr/scismgenie)
Since the 2012 election, most (not all, but most) Republicans have agreed that if they're going to remain viable in presidential elections in coming years, the party will have to broaden its appeal, particularly to Latino voters. There has been plenty of disagreement about how to go about this task. Especially over comprehensive immigration reform, which many Republicans see as too high a policy price to pay to achieve some uncertain measure of good will from those voters. But outside of conservative talk radio, there weren't many voices saying that they should junk the whole project. Every once in a while some voice from the past like Phyllis Schlafly would come out and bleat that the party should focus on the white folk who make up the party's beating heart, but to many it seemed like the political equivalent of your racist great aunt saying at Thanksgiving that she doesn't feel comfortable around those people. But as immigration reform wends its tortured path through Congress, more...

The Cruel Math of Immigration Reform in the House

Flickr/K P Tripathi
Every politician who gets elected to Congress believes that she's going for idealistic reasons. Sure, there are compromises to be made and certain kinds of drudgery to suffer through (particularly fundraising, which they all hate, and justifiably so), but they each believe that they'll do the right thing and work for the kind of change they'd like to see. Nobody gazes up at the Capitol building having been sent there by the people to do the people's work and says, "I'm going to just keep my head down and try not to take any political risks, so I can keep getting elected indefinitely." But in practice, they frequently face times when they can support something they believe is a good idea for one reason or another, but carries some risk. As comprehensive immigration reform is being considered in the House, each member is going to weighing questions like the following: How much good do I think this bill is going to do? How many votes will supporting it cost me? How hard will it be to...

Christian Employers Claim Their Religion Puts Them Above the Law

Sacred ground, where worldly laws don't apply. (Flickr/prariedogking)
Ready for the next court fight over Obamacare? Get to know Hobby Lobby, the chain of stores fighting the Affordable Care Act's requirement that the health insurance employers offer their employees cover contraception, and the next Christian martyr to the unholy scourge of health coverage for employees. Hobby Lobby's owners are conservative Christians, and though their company isn't a church, they'd like to choose which laws they approve of and which they don't, and follow only the laws they like. And a federal appeals court just ruled that not only can their suit go forward, but they're likely to win. Because apparently, "This law violates my religious beliefs" is now a get-out-of-jail-free card. The decision is simply mind-blowing, essentially finding that private business are just like religious institutions, and therefore they can decide which laws they have to obey: "Hobby Lobby and Mardel have drawn a line at providing coverage for drugs or devices they consider to induce...

Cuddly Robots to Make Life in the Nursing Home Tolerable

Robots: Not just for nuns anymore. (Photo from Paro Robots U.S., Inc.)
In the movie Castaway , Tom Hanks' character, stranded on an island with no human companionship, dresses up a volleyball to look vaguely like a person's head, gives it a name ("Wilson"), then spends years having conversations with it. Near the end of the film, as Hanks is making his desperate attempt to return to civilization on a raft, Wilson gets washed overboard. There's a poignant moment when Hanks tries to reach Wilson, who is drifting away from the raft, then realizes sadly that he'll have to let it go if he's going to save himself. Because no matter how much emotion he's invested it with, in the end it's just a volleyball. Here in the actual world, there are lots of people who go through their days lacking companionship, many of whom live in nursing homes. As the Baby Boom generation ages, there are going to be a lot more of them. Which naturally leads to the question: Can we use robots to make their lives a little less miserable? Slate's Future Tense brings us the not-really-...

Why the Prop. 8 Decision Should Make Liberals Uneasy

San Francisco City Hall after Prop. 8 was struck down. (Flickr/CHUCKage)
It's been pointed out many times that both the liberals and the conservatives on the Supreme Court often seem to reason backwards, starting with the outcome they'd prefer to see, then coming up with a rationale to justify that outcome. For instance, as I noted yesterday, Antonin Scalia was happy to overturn a law passed and overwhelmingly reauthorized by Congress (the Voting Rights Act) because he didn't like the law, then in a decision issued the very next day, thundered against the Court's majority for having the temerity to overturn a law passed by Congress (the Defense of Marriage Act), because that happened to be a law he did like. Fortunately, the sweeping majesty of our jurisprudential history provides an endless supply of rationales a justice can use to support whatever decision he or she would like to make. But sometimes, a good outcome can produce a dangerous precedent. And that may be just what happened in the Proposition 8 case the Court decided yesterday. In the case, the...

Antonin Scalia Is Angry. Again.

Flickr/The Higgs Boson
Ten years ago, when the Supreme Court ruled that laws outlawing sodomy between consenting adults were unconstitutional in the case of Lawrence v. Texas , Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a blistering dissent . "What a massive disruption of the current social order," he practically wailed from the page. He said that the Court had "largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda," and contrasted the Court with the good people of America, who "do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home. They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive." And perhaps most notably, Scalia lamented that under the rationale the Court's majority was using, the government wouldn't be able to prohibit gay people from getting married. To each other! He was right about that, anyway. But...

IRS Scandal Ends With a Whimper

No, not that kind of bolo. (Flickr/Magpie Gal)
With Edward Snowdon on his whirlwind tour of countries unfriendly to the United States and the Supreme Court handing down a bunch of important decisions, this is a good week for stories to get lost in the back pages. So you may not have noticed that late yesterday, the IRS scandal, supposedly Worse Than Watergate™, came to a sputtering halt with the release of new documents in the investigation. The whole scandal, you'll recall, is about how conservative groups applying for 501(c)(4) status were given extra scrutiny, while other kinds of groups just slid by. Well, it turns out, not so much : The instructions that Internal Revenue Service officials used to look for applicants seeking tax-exempt status with "Tea Party" and "Patriots" in their titles also included groups whose names included the words "Progressive" and "Occupy," according to I.R.S. documents released Monday. The documents appeared to back up contentions by I.R.S. officials and some Democrats that the agency did not...

My, What a Long Bill You Have!

A page of the immigration bill, with very few words on it.
Some people imagine that talking points are distributed by some Central Office of Liberalism or Conservative Headquarters, put out each day with instructions for what to say and how to say it. That's not really how it works; sure, there are organizations that email around suggestions on arguments people ought to make, but for the most part, talking points are more viral, spreading from person to person when they find an amenable host. Sometimes a talking point spreads because it is vivid and persuasive, while at other times, it spreads despite being completely ridiculous. So it is with an old chestnut we've heard before on issues like health care, and we're now hearing on immigration reform. The talking point says that a bill currently being debated contains many pages, and therefore must be a bad thing for America . This is almost always offered by Republicans, in part because they generally think government should refrain from tackling complex problems that might require complex...

Highway Robbery for High-Speed Internet

Creative Commons
If you're one of those Northeastern elitists who reads The New York Times , you turned to the last page of the front section Friday and saw an op-ed from a Verizon executive making the case that "the United States has gained a global leadership position in the marketplace for broadband," and don't let anyone tell you different. "Hey," you might have said. "Didn't I read an almost identical op-ed in the Times just five days ago?" Indeed you did , though that one came not from a telecom executive but from a researcher at a telecom-funded think-tank . And if you live in Philadelphia, your paper recently featured this piece from a top executive at Comcast, explaining how, yes, American broadband is the bee's knees. That smells an awful lot like a concerted campaign to convince Americans not to demand better from their broadband providers. Perhaps they're trying to influence the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who has been named by President Obama but not yet...

The Song of the White House Spokesperson

White House spokesperson Jay Carney, seen here appreciating a reporter's question.
If you asked me who was the most appalling evader/distracter/dissembler among White House spokespeople over the time I've been politically aware, I'd have to say Ari Fleischer, who served in that position for the first couple of years of George W. Bush's administration. I remember often shouting at Fleischer on the TV as he spun some inverted version of the truth to the press, inventing absurd new terms (remember "homicide bombing"?), telling Americans to "watch what they say," and most of all, just shamelessly denying what everyone knew to be true (Jonathan Chait penned the definitive takedown of Fleischer). On the other end of the spectrum I'd have to put Mike McCurry, who did the job under Bill Clinton, including the period covering the impeachment scandal. McCurry wasn't any more forthcoming than anybody else who has held that job, but he had an easy, straightforward manner that seemed to make the interaction between himself and the reporters more of an honest negotiation over...

Immigration Reform, Now Surging With Testosterone

Flickr/Donna Burton
According to the latest news , Senators have reached another in an endless series of agreements on the evolving immigration bill, this one providing for doubling the size of the Border Patrol and adding 700 miles of new fencing. The 700 miles of fence was on the table before, but doubling the Border Patrol is a bigger increase than had been discussed up until now. But what to call this proposal? It needs a name, one that says to wavering Republicans that if they support the bill, they're big, strong, virile, manly men whom younger women continue to find sexually compelling. OK, you may say that my interpretation is a bit strained. Maybe it is. But let's take a look: The Senators involved—Republicans John Hoeven and Bob Corker, who have been working with Gang of 8 members Senators Chuck Schumer, Bob Menendez, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham—have dubbed it the "border surge" plan; they're preparing a Thursday announcement. "For people who are concerned about security, once they see what...

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